Series Bible, Take 1

So I’m looking into this whole “series bible” thing – seemed like a good idea, since I’m about to delve into writing a trilogy.  It’s pretty self-explanatory.  A series bible is just an organized set of notes on who/what/where everything is in your books – a way to keep track of people and settings that you mention, even in passing.  So if you need that information later, you have an easy reference for it instead of having to scan back through your whole manuscript to find out what color some bit character’s eyes were. 

Honestly, I already have so many notes on this trilogy that putting together a series bible seems like a bit of a joke.  Still, I could benefit from some organization at this point, given how many versions I’ve started of this #$@% book over the years, then changed things around, then changed them back, then changed them to something entirely different, etc.

My plan for this series bible is along the lines of a binder with separate tabs for the major characters, one section for lesser and bit characters, and a section for the settings – maybe broken up into places around the main city where most of the story takes place, and all the other cities, towns, battlefields, etc. that the characters come and go through.  Personally, since I draw, I like to do sketches of my characters and the places they spend most of their time, as visual stimulation and to keep things clear and consistent.  I’ll probably put some of those into the bible, if not on my bedroom wall next to my outline.  Even if you’re not artistically inclined, you can collect photos from books or magazines, postcards, online sources, etc. and use those for your visuals.

This being a fantasy novel, I’ll also include my ridiculously extensive notes on how the different magic styles work (there are five of ’em in this book, but thankfully I know better than to info dump all of that into the story!) and maybe flesh out my notes about the two religions that are prominent in the storyline.

I’m sort of approaching the series bible concept as a scrapbooking type project, only without the fancy paper and little cutouts of birthday cakes and stuff.  Although fancy paper isn’t necessarily a bad idea, especially if it’s a pattern that would be common on clothes or wallpaper in the story setting….  Hm….!

Breaking Open the Moment

One of my poet friends, Ernie O’Dell, introduced me to the phrase, “breaking open the moment,” some years ago at a Green River Writer’s Retreat.  I don’t know if it came from elsewhere first, or if it’s an Ernie original, but it certainly has been an excellent exercise in my prose writing, although it was brought up in application to poetry at the workshop.

As I understand it, the point of the exercise is to really dig for the most evocative sensory details present within a scene or a poem – and not just the visual aspects of what occurs, but keeping in mind all the senses.  Mention tactile sensations, scents, sounds, tastes.  Don’t just put in the first or most obvious thing that comes to mind. 

Your characters are on a beach?  Of course there’s going to be the sound of waves and the taste of salt on the air.  But what else?  Is there another taste in the air, maybe a flavor of iron from the seaweed?  How does wet sand smell?  Are there gulls nearby – aren’t they making noise?  Is there a lot of wind?  Grit in the wind from all the sand?  Shells underfoot – how many?  Are they broken and sharp, or weathered smooth?  Are other people making noise – kids playing, a boombox, conversations held loud enough to be heard over the sound of the surf and the wind?  Waves crash coming in, yeah, we all know that.  The water makes a different sound going back out, especially on a beach with a lot of shells – you can hear them rattle as the water pulls away, weird little suction sounds, the hiss of the sand shifting. 

Just to give an example.  That’s the idea behind breaking open a moment.  Just keep going with it.  You don’t have to include everything you come up with in your finished scene, but you can cut through the boring clichés and find some distinctive, original details to work with. 

Nothing kills a reader’s attention like a plain vanilla description full of phrases they’ve read a million times.  Most readers want to feel like they’re really in the book, like they’re there with the characters, and you can’t do that if you don’t give them any sense of the atmosphere, the feel and taste and smell and sound and imagery of the scene.  Do you want to watch a movie where every scene takes place in front of a whitewashed backdrop?  Where there’s no ambient sound?  No extras, even in scenes that should have extras, or where all the extras are the same height, race, weight, hair color, and all dressed the same?  Unless that’s some kind of commentary or we’re dealing with a new kind of zombie in this movie, that just sounds like a total lack of atmosphere to me.

Put your reader there, inside the story world.  Give them things to latch onto that will spark their imaginations – readers will fill a lot in for themselves if you provide a few really stellar, evocative details to get them started.

What Your Narrator Doesn’t Notice

Over the weekend, I attended a convention for science fiction and fantasy writers.  At one of the programs, a fellow audience member asked the panelists an excellent question:  How do you convey important details to the reader through a narrative character who wouldn’t notice.  If your narrator is a detective, s/he will probably be inherently observant, but not every character is attuned to every little thing that happens around them.  In real life, people range from highly observant to completely oblivious.  It’s no different with characters.

It was a question that particularly interested me, given the narrator of my novel The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.  Erica is the first person narrator, and while she’s far from oblivious to details, within the context of the events of the book, she’s incredibly single-minded.  Her own goal is the only thing that she’s focused on, and, to her, everything else is sort of just background noise and distraction.

But I still had to get information across to the reader.  More is going on with the other characters than Erica is putting together, and it was important to convey that to make them full, rounded characters to the reader, as well as helping advance the main plot.  It was a tricky at points – I didn’t want Erica to come across as dense, but I also wanted to convey her state of mind and intense focus.

I handled it (I hope, anyway – LOL) by having Erica see details that she didn’t necessarily think much of.  She didn’t put things together, but she did take note of things that laid the groundwork for the bigger picture.  Other characters (who were putting things together) reacted based on their understanding of the situations that Erica was ignoring because of her “blinders” and I tried to make a point of putting in the narration what it was that was on Erica’s mind instead of what was going on.

For example, she’d be in a conversation with two other characters, but in between the dialogue, she’s trying to work out a plan to reach her goal.  While the reader is getting information from the dialogue and putting it together, Erica is also stating outright in her narrative, “I wasn’t really listening at that point, though.  I was trying to gauge whether or not I could get away with…” etc.  That allowed me to do a lot of work within the scene (setup for the bigger plot as well as conveying subplot information about the other characters in the dialogue), and also showed Erica’s thought process and calculation (so she’s clearly not stupid, just distracted) and made it clear why she missed hints that were right in front of her.

An example of a character who just doesn’t get most of what goes on around him would be Rusty James from the novel Rumblefish by S.E. Hinton (there’s also an excellent movie based on the book).  Rusty James isn’t so much oblivious as…well…dumb, but he’s a great character, and Hinton conveys an incredible amount of subtle meaning, emotion, and character depth in the people and events around him, despite how little of it her narrator actually takes in and processes.